Back in 2010, nearly 14% of Brett Gardner's plate appearances ended in a walk, significantly more than the MLB average of 8.7%. Gardner's walk rate was among the highest in baseball, ranking 10th out of 151 players with at least 500 plate appearances.
Most players with high walk rates are power hitters who rarely get anything good to hit, but Gardner earned his free passes by simply not swinging. In 2010, he swung just 31% of the time -- lower than any player in baseball. Opposing pitchers have always pounded the strike zone against Gardner, but he let most of those strikes go by, essentially hoping that he'd see four balls before he saw three strikes. That's not Gardner's game anymore. Last season, Gardner swung at a career-high 40% of the pitches he saw, which caused his walk rate to plummet to an uncharacteristically league-average 8.5%. This year's brought more of the same. So far, he's swung at 40% of the pitches thrown to him and walked just 5.5% of the time. Usually, it's a bad thing when a hitter starts hacking at more pitches. Walks are a valuable commodity, even if they aren't the sexiest way to end a plate appearance. Plus, being more aggressive generally means swinging at more pitches out of the zone -- sacrificing walks in order to swing at pitches that aren't all that hittable.
In Gardner's case, swinging at more pitches seems to be working in his favor. Although he's walking less than ever before, he's also hitting the ball with much more authority. Gardner's power has yet to show up in a small sample of games this year, but since Opening Day 2013, he's had a slugging percentage of .408, which is slightly above the league average. Prior to 2013, his career slugging percentage sat a meager .368. Gardner's essentially traded in a few walks for a few extra base hits, resulting in a slight bump in his offensive performance. This transformation was no accident, but was something he worked on with hitting coach Kevin Long last spring. Gardner and Long hoped that by being more aggressive, Gardner would be able to connect on more hittable pitches early in counts; and based on what we've seen over the past 13 months, that strategy has worked.
Patience is a desirable quality for a hitter to have, but there is such a thing as being too passive at the dish -- and it seems like Gardner had crossed that threshold in his early days as a big leaguer. Today's Brett Gardner is still pretty darn patient, but just not to the stoics level that he was in years past. And while he no longer draws a ton of walks, he more than makes up for it by no longer being completely punchless at the plate.